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William Mallinson

Professor of Political Ideas and Institutions, Università degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi

Britain’s well-known keenness to keep Russia, and then the Soviet Union, and now again just Russia, away from the Eastern Mediterranean is a well-established fact of foreign policy. Since the end of the last world war, the same policy has returned, albeit in the new colours of America, with the UK in attendance. This article traces some key events in the continuing atavistic story and then attempts to prognosticate, concluding that, whatever the public relations spin on events, little has altered since the assassination of Greece’s first pro-Russian leader, Count Kapodistrias, other than cosmetically. In short, the same things return, but with different colours.

Russian foreign policy is not as a rule aggressive, such as the US’s and Turkey’s. In the case of its relations with Greece, Moscow is happy to watch Greek-Turkish tensions causing problems for NATO, and influence Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East to suit its own aims of stability. In this respect, Greece is on the sidelines, now considered to be a mere tool of US policy. In contrast, Turkey has shown a measure of independence vis-à-vis the US, which Greece would not dare to countenance. This is perhaps sensing that were Turkey to snatch a Greek island, the US would simply issue a critical statement against Turkey, and do all it could to prevent a war between NATO ‘allies’ Greece and Turkey, just as occurred with the Cyprus crisis in 1974. It wishes to keep its base at Incirlik.

Then becomes now, albeit with different colours. Just as with Britain during her heyday, Greece’s relations with Russia today are predicated on the US’s keeping Russia at bay in the Eastern Mediterranean, and therefore from having positive and close relations with Greece, Russia’s natural ally in the Nineteenth Century. It would take a Greek statesman of the calibre of Kapodistrias, de Gaulle or Putin to even begin to re-establish the balance. Common religious and historical ties are not enough.


Britain’s well-known keenness to keep Russia, and then the Soviet Union, and now again just Russia, away from the Eastern Mediterranean is a well-established fact of foreign policy. Since the end of the last world war, the same policy has returned, albeit in the new colours of America, with the UK in attendance. This article traces some key events in the continuing atavistic story and then attempts to prognosticate, concluding that, whatever the public relations spin on events, little has altered since the assassination of Greece’s first pro-Russian leader, Count Kapodistrias, other than cosmetically. In short, the same things return, but with different colours.

English Greece

In 1841, the British Minister to Greece, Sir Edmund Lyons, said: ‘A truly independent Greece is an absurdity. Greece can either be English or Russian, and since she cannot be Russian, it is necessary that she be English.’ His words show that the Cold War began long before the so-called Truman Doctrine. In fact, one can pre-date the beginning of a Cold War mentality to 1791, when the English Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, lambasted Russia for wishing to dismember Anatolia. This was only some twenty-two years after Catherine the Great’s attempt to free Greece via the Orlov brothers. At any rate, when Greece’s first leader, the pro-Russian Kapodistrias (a former Russian foreign minister), was assassinated in 1831, Britain breathed a sigh of relief. Thenceforth, Greece was a mere geopolitical tool of the world’s largest empire. The Crimean War demonstrates par excellence Britain’s insistence on keeping Russia away from Greece, just as does Britain’s possession of Cyprus in 1878, whereby Britain undertook to support the Ottoman Empire against Russia. Fast-forward to 1944 when, despite Churchill’s’ ‘percentages agreement’ with Stalin, whereby Greece would be ten per cent Russian and ninety English, Britain was still highly suspicious of its ‘ally’ Russia, even though the Foreign Office had admitted that Britain, not the Soviet Union, was responsible for the strength of the Communists in Greece (and Yugoslavia). 1947 is a key year, since this is when Britain literally handed Greece to the US, thus extricating itself from her embarrassing rôle in having aided and abetted the Greek civil war. Britain thus brought America into the Balkans, thereby replacing the dead Austro-Hungarian Empire as its pro-Ottoman and then pro-Turkish friend.

American Greece

Greece now appears to be again becoming one of the American military and commercial empire’s most compliant partners. Let us again go backwards: Trumanesque Greece was firmly part of the US and NATO Cold War strategy, with the Left Wing being reviled by the anti-communist deep state which, when threatened by liberalisation, engineered the military coup of 1967. This brought in a particularly pro-American government. Despite the US-condoned invasion of Cyprus, which led to the fall of the Junta, Greece's leaving NATO's integrated military structure for a few years, Andreas Papandreou’s short-lived push for more independence in foreign policy, and former recent Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis’ attempts to move closer to Moscow (e.g. the abortive Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline), Greece is now again moving very much into the US/NATO camp. This was epitomised by the recent signing of the 'EastMed Act’, which improves US military cooperation with Greece and establishes areas of cooperation such as energy security in the region, according to Jim Risch, chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The US is particularly happy with the agreement between Greece, Cyprus and Israel on gas exploration since it will reduce European dependence on Russian gas. The US is even happier with Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ public support for the assassination of Iran’s top general, Soleimani, which contrasts with France and Germany’s muted response. It is no exaggeration to state that Greece is in many respects emulating the foreign policy of the military dictatorship of 1967–1974.

Another factor in all this is the Greek-American one. There are estimated to be 1,400,000 Americans of Greek heritage, all with relatives in Greece, and all descended from immigrants. As with many immigrants, particularly those who have had to leave their country for economic reasons, many are beholden to their host country's policies, but particularly in the case of policy vis-à-vis Russia. They are spearheaded by the American Hellenic Institute, and lobby constantly to try and persuade the US to be firmer with Turkey on the Cyprus question. Yet they are by and large also anti-communist, and therefore anti-Russian, as if the Cold War is uppermost in their minds, with their apparent inability to differentiate between Communism and modern Russia.

The Greek government seems to naïvely think that by making Greece a US military strongpoint, as it has just done, it will gain US support, to help Greece to combat Turkish claims on some Greek islands. This is naïve, and the US Embassy has written: 'We recognize Greece’s border with Turkey, but not all the territorial waters implications which Greece asserts. We have not taken a position on sovereignty over Imia/Kardak, in part because of the lack of an agreed maritime boundary….. We recognize the six-mile territorial sea claim and a claim to the superjacent air space. We do not recognize Greece's claim to territorial air space seaward of the outer limit of its territorial sea."

Greece can expect no help from the US if Turkey does manage to grab a Greek island. Indeed, whatever the rhetoric, Turkey is more important to US and NATO interests than Greece. As the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office wrote in 1975, reflecting US policy then and now, "We must also recognise that in the final analysis Turkey must be regarded as more important to Western strategic interests than Greece and that, if risks must be run, they should be risks of further straining Greek rather than Turkish relations with the West." This is still true, whatever the public relations socio-political engineering. Greece also seems to have forgotten that the US facilitated and condoned the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. More worrying, Iran has already threatened retaliation if the US uses any base in Greece to attack it. In diplomacy, detail and precision are more important than pseudo-bonhomie and vague words. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, Greece’s behaviour puts Russia in a strong position. Before elaborating on this, let us first look at ‘Russian Greece’.

Russian Greece

As we have seen, the assassination of Greece’s first leader was the first blow to Greece-Russia relations, ushering in a period of instability and foreign, mainly French and British, interference. Yet the modern Greek state would not even have come about as it did, were it not for Russia: the Anglo-Russian Protocol of April 4, 1826, stated that Britain would mediate to make Greece an autonomous vassal of the Ottoman Empire, but that if this proved impossible, the two powers could intervene jointly or separately. Russia intervened, and Britain was forced to adopt an ‘if you can’t beat’em, join ‘em’ approach. Thus, the British-Russian-French fleet sunk the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet at Navarino, followed by Russia’s defeating the Ottomans in a quick war. Greece was thus able to gain its – albeit qualified — independence, as a protectorate of the ‘Powers’. Thereafter, Britain’s gunboat ‘diplomacy’ ensured that Greece was unable to support Russia officially in the Crimean War: Britain simply blockaded Piraeus. But during the Russian Revolution, Greece made a major strategic mistake by fighting the Bolsheviks, to Britain’s glee, thus helping Moscow justify supporting Mustafa Kemal. Although Greece and the Soviet Union were technically on the same side (i.e. the Greek government in exile) following the German invasion of Russia, the result of the Greek civil war and the Truman Doctrine put paid to any possibility of warm relations between Athens and Moscow. Stalin’s internal exiling of around 50,000 Soviet Greeks eastwards should be seen in this context, particular the groups exiled in the late Forties. Thereafter, the banning of the Greek Communist Party in Greece and the military Junta of 1967 to 1974 put paid to serious relations between Athens and Moscow. Thereafter, any serious attempts to improve relations have been thwarted in one way or another. Perhaps understandably, Moscow has considerable difficulty in trusting Greek governments, given Greece’s NATO-friendly energy policy, such as the US-sponsored Greece — Cyprus — Israel triangle, and now the military agreement with the US.

Therefore, whatever the natural, historical atavistic affinity between the Greek and Russian peoples — viz., inter alia, the Cyrillic alphabet, Orthodox Christianity, the Treaty of Küçük Kainardji (whereby Russia won the right to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire), a commercial treaty granting Greek ships the protection of the Russian flag, the establishment of a military academy for Greeks in Russia, the Greek Battalion of Balaclava (part of the Russian Imperial Army), and the pro-Russian Kapodistrias, strategic reality has to date proved stronger than nostalgia, emotion and atavistic affinity.

The Turkish Factor

On top of this, from a purely strategic viewpoint, Turkey is more important to Russia than Greece, one of the most obvious reasons being the fact that the Bosphorus Straits are on Turkish territory, and that Russia values its rights of passage. As Russia has seen Greece being used increasingly by the US as a tool to frustrate various Russian interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, so Russia has been skilfully playing on Turkish sensitivities to build up its influence. The sale of the S-400 system to Turkey, to Washington’s rage, is a prime example. Moscow has understood that unlike Greece, it can influence events, and chip away at US and NATO interests via Turkey: Realpolitik and soft power par excellence.

The Cyprus Complication

No consideration of Greece-Russia relations can be complete without some reference to Cyprus. The days of Archbishop Makarios' balanced relations with Moscow are dead and gone. Although Russia has taken various initiatives, such as proposing an international conference on Cyprus, NATO and the EU have resisted this. Russian proposals to rid the island of foreign armed forces are anathema to the US and Britain, who would then have to give the British 'Sovereign Base Areas' to Cyprus, thus weakening NATO's de facto base linking the Eastern Mediterranean to the Middle East. For NATO, Turkish interests take precedence over Cypriot and Greek ones. When Moscow tested the waters by selling its S-300 system to Cyprus in 1997, the resulting Turkish threats and EU and US pressure on Cyprus not to activate the system in Cyprus, saw it transferred to Crete. Again, Turkish interests took precedence. Russia does, of course, have its red line: when a resolution on the Annan unification plan was discussed in 2004, Russia vetoed it, since the plan as a whole was essentially NATO- (and Turkey-) friendly.

Russian foreign policy is not as a rule aggressive, such as the US’s and Turkey’s. In the case of its relations with Greece, Moscow is happy to watch Greek-Turkish tensions causing problems for NATO, and influence Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East to suit its own aims of stability. In this respect, Greece is on the sidelines, now considered to be a mere tool of US policy. In contrast, Turkey has shown a measure of independence vis-à-vis the US, which Greece would not dare to countenance. This is perhaps sensing that were Turkey to snatch a Greek island, the US would simply issue a critical statement against Turkey, and do all it could to prevent a war between NATO ‘allies’ Greece and Turkey, just as occurred with the Cyprus crisis in 1974. It wishes to keep its base at Incirlik.

To Conclude

Then becomes now, albeit with different colours. Just as with Britain during her heyday, Greece’s relations with Russia today are predicated on the US’s keeping Russia at bay in the Eastern Mediterranean, and therefore from having positive and close relations with Greece, Russia’s natural ally in the Nineteenth Century. It would take a Greek statesman of the calibre of Kapodistrias, de Gaulle or Putin to even begin to re-establish the balance. Common religious and historical ties are not enough.


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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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